States Ease Farmers Markets Food-Safety Regulations

The number of farmers markets has exploded in recent years, and states want to make sure they stay in business.

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For lots of people, going green means reducing their personal carbon footprint. And for many, that means buying food closer to its source. That demand for local meat and produce has been fueling an explosive growth in the number of farmers markets nationwide. There are currently about 7,200 farmers markets across the country -- a 64 percent jump in the past five years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that sales will reach $7 billion this year, nearly doubling since 2002. In addition to being easier on the environment, farmers’ fare is fresh and seasonal, and buying from a produce stand can help stimulate the local economy.

But is it safe?

That’s a question more people have been asking, since the fare sold at farmers markets generally receives less government oversight than the products sold on grocery store shelves -- and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. That’s because states have been moving to exempt farmers markets from the same food safety requirements that brick-and-mortar stores have to meet, says Doug Farquhar, program director of environmental health for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It is a growth market,” he says. “States want to encourage economic development.”

While there’s no evidence that food at farmers markets is any more dangerous -- most sources of foodborne illnesses are never identified -- there also is no evidence that it’s safer. State and local governments have jurisdiction over farmers markets. Yet data from a 2006 survey of farmers market managers reported minimal government oversight -- only 14 percent reported state government enforcement of food safety requirements and just 20 percent reported city, county or municipal involvement. “They may not be more or less hazardous,” says Farquhar, “but state regulators are starting to realize they are a market. And just like grocery stores, they need some regulation.”

In the past two years, state legislatures have moved to create more explicit rules governing the sale of food at farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer outlets. Most of these laws, however, have effectively eased regulations. Bills passed last year in Arizona, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Washington allow small-scale food producers to make low-risk food products (such as breads, cookies, jams and, in some states, home-canned fruits and vegetables) in their own kitchens, and then sell those products directly to consumers at venues like farmers markets. Without these kinds of “cottage food” bills, those bakers and canners would be required to make their food in a certified commercial kitchen. That’s cost-prohibitive for most startup businesses.

Still, foodborne illnesses sicken one person in six in the U.S. each year. So while governments don’t want to squash a growing economy -- and one that has so many environmental benefits -- they do want to ensure the food’s safe. The most serious attempt to do that while letting farmers markets flourish is Oklahoma’s approach, says Farquhar. A bill in both the House and Senate will allow the public health department to study food sold at farmers markets to see what kind of restrictions may or may not be necessary to make the food safe. Similarly, Illinois passed a law last year creating a task force to review the rules defining what products can be sold at farmers markets, as well as sanitation and food preparation requirements.

For now, however, Farquhar says it’s “up to individual vendors to make sure their products are safe.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.